INTERVIEW WITH “MISS SAIGON” STAR EVA NOBLEZADA

EVA NOBLEZADA IS A GIRL NO MORE.

When she was just 17, Noblezada landed the coveted role of Kim in Miss Saigon after a casting director heard her sing at the 2013 National High School Musical Theatre Awards (a.k.a the Jimmy Awards). Less than five years later, the now 21-year-old star is in the midst of wrapping up her truly sensational and Tony-nominated run in the Broadway revival of the musical (which closes January 14).

As if that’s not enough, Noblezada is also kicking off her 2018 with the final performances of her acclaimed solo concert, “Girl No More.” For the Filipino/Mexican-American singer, alternating between a Broadway stage and an intimate concert venue (NYC’s Green Room 42) have culminated in her dreams of becoming both a musical theater actor and a solo musician coming true.

I chatted with Noblezada as she reflected on her time in Saigon, what to expect from her solo concerts, her recent marriage, what she plans to do next, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Miss Saigon closes this month. Looking back at the show’s Broadway run, was there a specific performance that was your favorite?

EVA NOBLEZADA: No favorites. Just a lot of happy memories on and offstage. Opening night was special. Having my family and fiancé (at the time) in the audience and seeing their faces during bows was a heartfelt and incredible moment. I’ll never forget it! But doing the show day to day – even when it did seem like a grind – is just special in general. We have so many laughs!

What are your plans after the show closes? Where and when can your fans come to see you next?

I can’t say, as I’m not too sure. All I know is I’m excited about the little break I get. I’m excited to get away and revitalize myself!

Before the revival came to Broadway, you starred in the West End production of Saigon. What did you find to be the biggest differences between your experiences with this show in London and in New York?

I find the audiences different. Good different! In England, stage door sometimes isn’t a thing! So that was a change here, having gates and large crowds! Other than that, I find it’s really similar.

Since its 1989 debut, Miss Saigon has been revered as a contemporary musical theater classic. What do you think it is about this show that has captivated so many millions of people worldwide for the past nearly three decades?

Miss Saigon is a timeless story. It can be put in any backdrop of culture or setting and it’d still be beautiful. Also, you listen to the incredible music and that alone is a show! It breaks people’s hearts and transforms the environment with romance and passion … and lots of belting.

You also played a short run as Éponine in the West End production of Les Misérables. What is it about the music of Claude-Michel Schönberg that continues to draw you to his musicals?

Eight months isn’t too short! Well what’s not to love? His music in inspiring. Not to mention, I’ve wanted to play Eponine since I was a little girl.

In May 2016, you made your Carnegie Hall debut by performing “The Movie In My Mind” alongside Lea Salonga, who originated the role of Kim. How influential was Salonga when you were discovering your own interpretation of this iconic and complex character? And what’s the best advice that she ever gave you?

What a day to remember! I never saw Lea. I wasn’t even born! And I didn’t want to watch her Kim in fear that I would unconsciously take things from her brilliant performance. I started with a fresh page. No pre-conceptions. Nothing. Just the music, script and incredible cast next to me to help guide my young Kim through the ropes. Lea is legendary. Not only her voice but in character. What’s amazing about Lea is that she knows exactly how it is to be thrust into this role. Sometimes I have questions and just text her and she’s so honest. She really is an inspiration and idol.

You got married this past November. Congratulations! What has been the biggest highlight of newlywed life so far?

Thank you! I’m the luckiest woman alive! Just having him in my life. Even though a lot of the relationship is long distance. Our time together, even if not physically, is special and gets better every day. He’s an incredible, incredible person.

What was the defining moment in your life when you realized you wanted to pursue being a stage actor as a career?

I can’t say defining, but as a young girl I never shut up. I was always singing and wanting to perform for people!

Miss Saigon marked your Broadway debut, for which you received a Tony Award nomination. What did this type of industry recognition mean to you?

The Tonys was a crazy time. I learned so much more than I thought possible. The recognition for the show was more important for me. The day of course was special. Honestly, I wasn’t harnessing energy in winning. I was there to enjoy a day that I never thought possible in celebration of an amazing cast and the mini career I had made for myself.

On your nights off from Miss Saigon, you’ve been performing your solo concert, “Girl No More,” at The Green Room 42. Where does this concert’s name come from?

It is cheesy! But I just thought, “Hey, there are a lot that people don’t know about me.” It kind of stuck out.

What aspects of yourself as a performer are you able to display in this concert format that fans of yours might not have seen in Saigon?

Everything! I’m a character in Saigon. I’m playing a role that isn’t Eva. At my concert, I’m Eva. I’m myself. I sing whatever I want to sing and say whatever I want to say. They’re two different freedoms I can express on the Broadway stage and on a small stage. Both are important and both I’m in love with.

In “Girl No More” (which has been extended regularly since its fall 2017 debut), you sing quite a wide range of music. You cover artists like Frank Sinatra and Amy Winehouse and sing the signature songs of musical theater characters such as Elphaba, Sally Bowles, and Yentl, to name a few. How did you go about curating the set list for this show?

I had SO much fun putting together this set list. It was so easy too! I sat down with my brilliant Musical Director, Rodney, and continued to add song after song that I remember singing in my closet as a teenager. And every time I get to sing it, it fills me with so much joy!

Has “Girl No More” inspired you to want to release your own solo music? If so, what would that sound like and when can your fans expect to be able to hear/purchase it?

Yes and no. When I do release my own music, it’ll be when I have the time to. I am desperate to start a new chapter in my life.

Who are some of your biggest influences as both a solo vocalist and a musical theater performer?

Sutton Foster. My family. Amy Winehouse. And whoever I work with!

There have been long-gestating rumors that a film adaptation of Miss Saigon is in the works. Aside from yourself, who are some actors that you would like to see play Kim on screen?

I don’t care who it is. I will say this – there are too many beautiful Asian actors that don’t need a “name” to be in it. It needs to be someone who can tell the story honestly, as her own, and sing the shit out of it.

What are your musical theater dream roles?

Off the top of my head? Jeez. I would love to do something like Chicago – or play a man or something.

Thank you so much, Eva! I was so blown away by your performance in Saigon and I truly can’t wait to see what you do next. Is there anything that you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?

Thanks so much for taking the time! I would like to add, for anyone out there who is aspiring to be an actor/performer, being on Broadway will not define you. Know exactly who the hell you are. Your biggest strength will be filtering the bullshit (this includes people) who will want to shape you and change you into someone you’re not. Know who you are. Don’t be afraid to say no. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Take care of your body. Put people in your life who really love/tough love you. And come see Saigon!


Miss SaigonCLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Eva Noblezada in Miss Saigon, now through January 14 only!

And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Eva’s solo concert, “Girl No More.”

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: TALKING SAPPY SONGS WITH ALAN CUMMING

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Alan Cumming isn’t just one of the busiest artists in Hollywood. He’s also one of the most versatile.

Highlights from the past year alone have found the 51-year-old Scotsman co-hosting the Tony Awards, reprising his own Tony Award-winning role as the Emcee in the Broadway revival of Cabaret, garnering his third Emmy and second Golden Globe nominations for his co-starring role on CBS’ The Good Wife, publishing a New York Times bestselling memoir, and touring the country with his latest live musical act, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs. And he’s far from slowing down.

Hitting stores this Friday, Cumming’s second solo album will preserve this critically adored live show. Gearing up for a concert celebration at New York’s Carnegie Hall next week, Cumming chatted with me about his music, books, creative process, what’s in store for The Good Wife, and much more.

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ALEX NAGORSKI: Firstly, what’s your definition of a “sappy song” and how did you curate the track-list for this record?

ALAN CUMMING: I suppose a sappy song for me is a song that gets me emotional. There needs to be a story in it or it needs to have something that I can connect with and that can really make me feel. So that was really why I chose these songs. The year that I was doing Cabaret on Broadway again, my friends and I would play a lot of different music in my dressing room. A lot of the songs I sing on this album and in this concert are songs that I heard for the first time then. Many of the songs are by artists that I never thought I would like or are songs that one could be a little snippy about. But actually, there’s something about them that really resonates with me. All of the songs are songs that I really like, but I also feel that I add something new to them with my interpretations. Otherwise there’s no point in me just singing a nice song. Anyone could do that and there are plenty of people who can do it a lot better than I can.

As a musician, how do you feel you’ve evolved between this album and your previous release, I Bought A Blue Car Today?

I think I’ve found my voice a little bit more. I got better at adjusting songs and I know which songs are more suited to me. Over these years of performing, I’ve grown to understand my musical aptitude a bit better. I think I’ve zoned in on what I’m good at.

One of my personal favorites on the album is “Someone Like The Edge of Firework,” which you had previously released as a standalone single. What inspired you to mash up the songs that make this one up?

Years ago, I was in a club and the DJ played all three of those songs (Adele’s “Someone Like You, Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” and Katy Perry’s “Firework”) consecutively. I remember thinking that they all kind of sounded the same. They’re all the fucking same! I loved the idea of that and I really like all those songs. I realized that just because so much of our culture is repetitive, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the way it is. And I actually like it! I love the reaction that song gets when I do it. Everybody freaks out, so I of course really enjoy that. And it’s just nice singing all those songs because it does makes you think, “Wow, they are all the same. They’re all the same structure.”

If you had to only sing one song every day for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Oh my God! That’s like Survivor with my album. One song?! That would be horrible! There’s a song that I made up that I sing to my dog when it’s lunch time. I’d probably sing that because it’s fun and would also be useful. As for off the album? Gosh, this is Sophie’s Choice. I don’t know! Maybe “Somewhere Only We Know,” originally by Keane. I’m pretty sure I might do that one.

Next week, you’ll be celebrating the release of the album with a concert at Carnegie Hall, where you’ll be joined by friends like Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss, and Ricki Lake. How do you think performing these songs on such a large, iconic stage will be different than performing them in an intimate venue like the Café Carlyle where the album was recorded?

Well, I mean obviously there are some technical differences when it’s a bigger space like that, and you’ve got to bolt up the show a bit. But, you know, I’ve been touring Sappy Songs since the Café Carlyle residency. I’ve mostly been touring on weekends (because of shooting The Good Wife) all over America. And over the holidays, I was actually in Australia doing a concert there too. So I have been at much bigger venues with it already. It was kind of funny going back to the Carlyle to record the album this past December. Suddenly being back there, where it’s like 100 seats, it’s kind of a shock to your system just in terms of the acoustics and the amount of people in the room. But what I realized is that it doesn’t really matter what the number of people or the size of the venue are. It’s actually just about making a connection with people. You can do that in a huge venue and luckily I’m not worried about that. I kind of realized over the last six months doing it in so many different theaters that are so many different sizes that it’s just about me committing and being prepared to be vulnerable and open. That’s what does it, not the size of the venue.

At this concert, will you be exclusively performing music from the new record, or do you plan on adding in some oldies or surprises as well?

There will be a couple of surprises! There will certainly be a few because the show will be divided into two halves. I’ve obviously also got some guests joining me, so I’m going to be singing a little bit of stuff with them as well. So yes, some of my greatest hits will be appearing! Basically, it’ll be Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs but with a couple of little changes here and there.

You’ve already accomplished so much in your career. You’ve acted on screen and on stage. You’ve published a memoir and a novel. You’ve had your own photo exhibition and award-winning fragrance. You even have your own line of kitchen products at Fish’s Eddy, and the list goes on and on. With the release of this new album, what creative itch does making music scratch for you that these other forms of artistic expression don’t?

It’s not really like that for me. I think it’s all the same. Everything I do is all the same. I’m just telling stories and I’m just trying to express myself as a person. I’m an actor and I play other people all the time but a lot of my work is also about me. I put a lot of my personality and my life into the books and this record and into my work. I view myself as a storyteller and I use many different forms to tell those stories. In a way, I think this record is kind of the purest form of that because I’m sharing a lot of stuff and quite intimate things about my own life and my own experiences in it. It’s kind of the perfect fusion to be an actor and tell other people’s stories and then also have an outlet to tell my own stories at the same time. This record and this version of this show includes so much of what I’ve been doing in my work for a long, long time. So it scratches a lot of itches, if you will.

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One of the things that I thought made Not My Father’s Son such a captivating read was how brutally honest and vulnerable you were when describing your journey of discovering your own self-worth. Has the reaction from readers to such a personal story been similar or different than what you imagined it’d be when you were writing it?

The reactions were actually hugely surprising to me. I’m still nervous about it because you’re really putting yourself out there with something like that. I was nervous about how my mom and my brother were going to be affected. But what I didn’t bargain for was the really incredible response from people who said, “Your book has enabled me to deal with things in my family or talk to one of my parents” or “It’s actually inspired me to be honest in telling my story.” I know for sure that you can come out with something and never say, “I think I’ve really inspired a lot of people to do things in their lives that they were otherwise too scared to do.” So that has been truly amazing. I didn’t really envision that but I don’t know how I could have. It’s been really overwhelming in an amazing way and that’s been a really beautiful thing about it.

That’s incredible. You’re also working on a third book at the moment. What can you tell me about that?

Yeah! I’m not quite sure what I’m going to call it yet but it’s a book of stories and photographs I’ve taken over the years. In a way, it’s another memoir-ish type of book, in that it’s all things about my life and stuff that’s happened to me. But this time, it’s done in a way either inspired by a photo or there was a photo taken at the time I’m talking about or that is connected to it in some way. Because of that format, I’m actually getting to tell far more stories. It’s got a lighter tone than my last book. It’s full of little stories and fun montages and photos I’ve taken in New York City, as well as longer stories about certain things. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. The book will be coming out in September.

I can’t wait to read it! Eli Gold, your character on The Good Wife, recently revealed a major secret to Alicia (Julianna Margulies) that viewers have watched him keep for years. How will the ramifications of this confession continue to play out in the coming episodes and is there anything else you can tease that fans can look forward to in the rest of this season?

Well, she’s obviously hurt. It’s funny because the night that we recorded the album was the same night that that episode aired. I told the audience what happens and even said in the show, “Tomorrow I could be the most hated man in America.” It’s interesting because people were wondering why Eli would tell her that now. What he told her about happened so long ago that maybe people had forgotten about it. So what’s been lovely is that Eli has been getting sympathy from a lot of viewers as well now that he’s finally come clean. I find that really fascinating. In terms of what happens, Alicia’s of course not going to just go back to normal straightaway. It takes a little while. But there will be a rapprochement. They do become friends again. Thank god!

Phew! What attracted you to Florent, the upcoming Showtime dark comedy about New York restaurateur, Florent Morellet, which you’ll be starring in?

I hope I’m going to be starring in it! It’s still kind of in the early, early stages but I’m very hopeful that this is going to be something that is in my future. In a fun way, Florent the man and Florent the restaurant are this kind of gateway to New York over the decades. He opened his restaurant in the 1980’s and the Meatpacking District has changed so radically since then. So has New York actually. His story of being a gay man during that time obviously was a rocky road and with various tragedies and triumphs. He is an incredible force of nature. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he’s just a bundle of energy and a kind of supernova. And so I just thought it was really great focusing on how one person and one restaurant could be so important to such a big city. I actually used to go there to eat. When I first moved to New York, I lived in the West Village a couple of blocks away from there, and I would go frequently. It was when the Meatpacking District literally had blood in the streets.

Oh wow. Speaking of New York, is there any chance that we’ll see you on Broadway again any time soon?

I hope so! I don’t have any concrete plans right now but I’m always trying to come back to the theater. I’ve got some things I’m talking about, but it won’t be for a while. Maybe I’ll do something in 2017, but I’ve got too many other plans for this year.

You’ve played so many diverse characters throughout your career. Out of them all, is there one that you think is the most similar to you personally?

I don’t know! I mean, I don’t really play characters who are like me. I think a lot of the bigger characters I’ve played, the more extravagant people, are what people tend to think I’m maybe like. That’s not true. I once did a movie where I played a taxi driver who was a nice, lovely guy, and he kind of sounded and looked like me, but he wasn’t me at all. In a funny way, I suppose Florent might be the closest. He’s someone who came to New York and has a great lust for life and has a real eclectic taste in people and things.

I know you’re an O.B.E. (Office of the British Empire), but if hypothetically, you were running for President in 2016, what would your campaign slogan be?

Holy shit! That’s a good question. It would be, “Shut Up, Stupid People!!” Definitely with two exclamation points.

Thanks so much for chatting, Alan!

Thank you! Nice talking to you.

Originally published on PopBytes

CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes